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Authorities risk falling short on libraries brief

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Councils with ill-thought out plans to close libraries or cut staff numbers risk failing in their legal duty to provide a “comprehensive and efficient” library service.

This is the chief conclusion of an in-depth investigation by MPs into the impact of austerity cuts on England’s shrinking library service.

John Whittingdale, chair of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, which carried out the study of England’s 3,500 libraries, concluded that some councils were “somewhat in the dark” about their legal library duties.

Too many had seen plans to slash their library services overturned in court, a situation the committee described as an “expensive, undemocratic and generally unsatisfactory” policy-making method.

“Local authorities are having to take decisions now about the funding and shape of the library service but a number appear insufficiently aware of the available guidance on the definition of ‘comprehensive and efficient’,” the report Library Closures states. “They also appear to lack information about the requirements emerging from multiple judicial reviews.”

The committee’ report urges the government to take a “new approach” when exercising oversight of the 151 authorities which run library services in England.

“We recommend that the Secretary of State provide all local library authorities with the guidance arising from the Arts Council’s consultation exercise as swiftly as possible.”

The Arts Council launched a consultation into the future of libraries shortly after taking over the role of overseeing England’s library services from the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, a government agency which was axed in the government’s bonfire of the quangos.

  • 1 Comment

Readers' comments (1)

  • Closing libraries can be a legal minefield but it can be done lawfully if members and officers attend to the details. While I was Chief Executive at Brent Council (1998-2012), the authority successfully resisted legal challenges in the High Court, the Appeal Court and the Supreme Court. This outcome did not happen by accident. Of course councils need to be mindful of the legal duty to provide a 'comprehensive and efficient' service of course but that does not mean preserving all existing libraries in perpetuity.

    Brent adopted a genuinely strategic approach based on a clear view of how libraries and library usage is changing; assembled a thorough case-by-case assessment of the implications of each and every library closure; undertook a thorough consultation exercise and an equally thorough review of potential diversity impacts; documented everything that was said and done with meticulous attention to detail; and set up a high level member and officer process (with external legal support to back up in-house lawyers) to oversee the whole project.

    Despite a huge but often misinformed media campaign against the proposals, Brent's position was vindicated fully by the courts at every stage of the challenge process. Nobody relishes closing libraries if it can be avoided but hard times require tough choices that are executed professionally. That is precisely what we did in Brent so I know it can be done. What we do not need now is more direction from central government about how these inevitably sensitive and controversial decisions should be taken.

    Gareth Daniel

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